NEWARK, NJ - Some council members were confused Thursday over a $150,000 contract for a nonprofit legal organization to provide representation in eviction court at no cost to low-income residents.

Some were shocked the city actually had to pay for the so-called "pro bono" attorneys in the city's right-to-counsel program. It’s a progressive service that’s only been implemented in two other cities across the United States: San Francisco and New York City.

“I thought that these services were going to be provided pro bono by the attorneys providing the service,” said Councilman At-Large Carlos Gonzalez, who once worked as an attorney in eviction court.

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Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart said the city has actually paid $400,000 for the program thus far. Those dollars go towards the salary of the city's Tenant Legal Services office coordinator, upgrading the office space in city hall and the contract for the attorneys, he said.

"We are in the process of working things out with a number of funders who want to help us with this process," Stewart said. "Of course, when we do receive those funds, we will come to the council with another resolution speaking to the fact that we want to accept those funds and utilize those funds to help these people as well."

The program has been slow to start in Newark. Before even being fully implemented, it was lauded by Mayor Ras Baraka during his state of the city address in March.

The city says there were 38,000 eviction actions filed in Essex County last year, and 20,000 of those were in Newark. Those who make no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line would qualify for the service.

The ordinance that set up the groundwork for the program was criticized by some community groups last year as essentially being copied and pasted from New York City’s program. The groups wanted to know how the program would be paid for too. 

Cheers erupted in city hall last December after the ordinance finally passed, but the program didn’t start at that time. The ordinance said the city’s Office of Tenant Legal Services -- where residents could go to seek services -- would be hashed out by April. No budget was laid out in the ordinance.

The office opened officially on Wednesday, but it had no attorneys to represent residents. The $150,000 contract that was approved at Thursday’s council meeting was put on the agenda in a flurry as an added starter. Such items don’t appear on the original agenda that is posted on the city's website. 

Essex-Newark Legal Services was awarded the first contract yesterday. But council members wanted to know if more contracts for the program would be required in the future.  

“I mean, I would hope that internally you've done your diligence and evaluations and assessment and that you have an idea of what this program is going to look like as it relates to staffing and also potential contracts with firms that can help carry out the service,” said North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos.

Ramos suggested law firms that have been awarded large contracts with the city in the past should be asked to do the work for the program at no cost to the city. He said technically, the firms are doing work for residents, not the city. 

However, Stewart warned the council of the city’s pay-to-play laws on the books. The ordinance was created under Cory Booker’s administration and generally prevents contracts being awarded to those who donate to city politicians. 

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Gonzalez said law firms are required to do pro-bono work in addition to their salaried jobs. But Stewart, the corporation counsel, said the city couldn’t expect to cover the entire program with that alone.

Council President Mildred Crump said while the city is “not a charity,” the program was definitely needed based on what she sees while driving throughout Newark. She wanted to know why the $150,000 contract was so low.

“We fund apples and oranges,” Crump said. “Why can't we fund something that's going to save people's property and their lifestyle?”

Gonzalez, the councilman who first spoke up about the program’s budget, said he supported the service “100 percent,” but wanted to know where the city would draw the line.

“What about someone that is losing his car and cannot go to work and not pay the rent so now he's evicted?” Gonzalez asked. “I believe we might be taking a slippery slope by providing this service.”

The program received strong support from Central Ward Councilwoman LaMonica McIver yesterday too.

“We voted on it as a council, that we were going to have this,” McIver said. “So it's our responsibility to move it forward and deal with the technicalities at some point."

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